Viral RNA genomes change shape as virus particles disassemble, form replication complexes, attach to ribosomes for translation, evade host defense mechanisms, and assemble new virus particles. These structurally dynamic RNA shapeshifters present a challenging RNA folding problem, because the RNA sequence adopts multiple structures and may sometimes contain regions of partial disorder. Recent advances in high resolution asymmetric cryoelectron microscopy and chemical probing provide new ways to probe the degree of structure and disorder, and have identified more than one conformation in dynamic equilibrium in viral RNA. Chemical probing and the Detection of RNA Folding Ensembles using Expectation Maximization (DREEM) algorithm has been applied to studies of the dynamic equilibrium conformations in HIV RNA in vitro, in virio, and in vivo. This new type of data provides insight into important questions about virus assembly mechanisms and the fundamental physical forces driving virus particle assembly.
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